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Immigration and the moral imperative to stop dangerous boat crossings

By David Warden, Chair of Dorset Humanists

In this article, David Warden argues that people do not have the right to settle anywhere they want to. Identifying as a ‘Citizen of the World’ is idealistic but it can signify a sense of entitlement which renounces commitments and responsibilities to a particular place. If people are forcibly displaced from their homes and territories, however, they do have the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need to disentangle these two drivers of migration.

Humanists are supportive of human rights in general and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular. Article 14 of the UDHR is very straightforward: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The problem we are currently facing, and by ‘we’ I mean the whole of humanity, is the vast and growing scale of human displacement and migration. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) online data finder, 1.3 per cent of the global population are ‘forcibly displaced people’. In percentage terms that may not sound a lot, but it equates to 103 million people on the move or in refugee camps. In addition, the United Nations estimates that there are more than 250 million ‘economic migrants’ who are seeking to improve their livelihoods and achieve better prospects for themselves and their families (A Very Short Introduction to Refugees (2021) by Gil Loescher, p.14). This takes the proportion of the world population on the move up to well over 4 per cent. And the problem is likely to get bigger. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, 200 million people could be classified as ‘climate refugees’. With a population of some 70 million and a land area less than half that of France, the UK is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe and more densely populated than China. There are physical and social limits to how many extra people we can accommodate and integrate.

The human suffering behind the stark figures, however, is almost unimaginable. People are uprooted from their homes by conflict, invasion, bombing, terrorism, deliberate destruction of infrastructure, famine – both natural and deliberate - drought, floods, ethnic cleansing, earthquakes, hurricanes, economic and political collapse and so on and on. After reading about the problem in preparation for this article, I went shopping in my local M&S Food store and I was stunned by the mountains of luxury foods on sale for Christmas and the stark contrast between this cornucopia and the bleak living conditions of so many people around the world. The 1985 Band Aid song 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?' started playing in my head.

Facts and figures

Facts and figures about migration can be confusing and bewildering, so I’ll try to keep this section as short and as simple as possible. This is just to give you a feel for the scale and distribution of the problem. Figures are rounded. Of the 103 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, 53m are internally displaced (meaning they are still in their country of origin), 32m are refugees, nearly 5m are asylum seekers and more than 5m are other people in need of international protection. 72% of all refugees and other people in need of international protection come from just five countries: Syria (7m), Venezuela (5m), Ukraine (5m), Afghanistan (3m), and South Sudan (2m). In 2021, the top five most common countries of nationality of people who applied for asylum in the UK were Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania and Syria and of all refugees resettled in the UK from January 2010 to December 2021, around 70% were Syrian citizens (Migration Observatory). 74% of the world’s refugees and other people in need of international protection are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. 69% are hosted in neighbouring countries. Over a third are hosted in these five countries alone: Turkey (4m), Colombia (2m), Germany (2m), Pakistan (2m) and Uganda (2m). An estimated 36m forcibly displaced people are children under the age of eighteen and 4m people are stateless. (UNHCR Refugee Data Finder, Key Indicators).

The UK situation

The UK is no slouch but the Home Secretary herself (the Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC, image left) has described our asylum system as ‘broken’. We are one of the top ten donors to the UNHCR: $128m in 2019. That’s more than Japan although only a third as much as Germany. The US is the biggest donor - $1.7bn, and the EU as a whole donates $473m (Loescher, p.63). In 2021, when compared against EU+ countries (that’s the EU plus Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway), the UK ranked 6th in the absolute number of people to whom it gave protection although this ranking drops to 18th when adjusted for population size. An estimated 388,000 foreign-born people (0.6% of the UK’s total resident population) living in the UK in 2019 originally came to the UK to seek asylum (Oxford Migration Observatory Briefing Paper - full reference is at the end of this article). The financial cost of operating the UK’s asylum system reached around £2bn in 2022. A large part of the cost appears to relate to the enormous backlog of around 160,000 asylum claims and the associated cost of hotel accommodation and support payments. The UK employs about 1,000 caseworkers to process asylum claims, and the work can be stressful and even traumatic. The system appears to have been overwhelmed, despite a reported doubling of the number of caseworkers this year, leading to low staff morale and high turnover. Meanwhile, latest estimates suggest that in the year ending June 2022, 1.1 million people migrated into the UK and 560,000 people emigrated from it, leaving a net migration figure of 504,000 (Sturge, p5). This includes 89,000 Ukrainians and 27,000 people from Hong Kong arriving under various resettlement and visa schemes. The number of people arriving in small boats has increased dramatically to over 40,000 people this year. And in the year ending June 2021, 6 million people living in the UK had the nationality of a different country (9% of the total population).

Susan Bryson and Cathy Silman in their companion article on immigration for Humanistically Speaking this month write about the benefits of refugee immigration, including the talents of Freddie Mercury and Sir Mo Farah (image left), and the enjoyment of international cuisine. It's good, of course, to be reminded of some of these cultural benefits of migration, but these examples do not address the question of unlimited mass immigration. Susan and Cathy also suggest that asylum seekers could be permitted to plug the large gaps in our labour force. In Australia, Canada, and Sweden, asylum seekers can work immediately, while in Portugal they can work after one month, in Germany three months, Belgium four months, and the US after six months. Research indicates that longer asylum waiting times have negative impacts on long-term employment outcomes for asylum seekers and that being unable to work while waiting for a decision is also likely to hinder long-term integration (Migration Observatory briefing). Susan and Cathy make the case that labour immigration (i.e., migrants coming to jobs they have secured in the UK) could be seen as us ‘taking’ from other countries, whereas allowing asylum seekers to take up gainful employment could be seen as ‘giving’. This moral framing is quite persuasive but it doesn't address the mode of transit for thousands of migrants. Surely there is a strong moral case for stopping people from making extremely hazardous, and sometimes fatal, journeys across the English Channel.

Susan and Cathy also suggest that the UK could set up asylum application stations in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, with camps nearby where people could await assessment in safety. If asylum were granted, safe transport to Britain would be provided. If these centres were set up, they believe that fewer people would be open to the lure of people traffickers. The UK does already operate settlement schemes for refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Since early 2021, four UK resettlement schemes have been in operation: the UK Resettlement Scheme, the Mandate Scheme for refugees from anywhere in the world, the Community Sponsorship Scheme, and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. In addition, on 31st January 2021, the UK opened a new route for Hong Kong British National Overseas citizens and their close family members, under which an estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong residents will be eligible to move to the UK and eventually become British citizens. And since February 2022, the UK has created the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Migration Observatory briefing). Perhaps the UK should be doing more. If we did, would this stem the flow of Channel crossings? We cannot just assume that it would. Establishing a causal link between an increase in resettlement programmes and a reduction in Channel crossings would require expert analysis of migrant flows.

Gil Loescher, in A Very Short Introduction to Refugees (2021, Oxford), writes that there needs to be a globally-coordinated system to deal effectively with the refugee problem, the scale of which is daunting and growing. The world does not have this at the moment. We have a plethora of ad hoc arrangements, NGOs and charities, in addition to the UNHCR which is financially dependent on states that often earmark donations according to their own interests. The EU does not have an unblemished track record in dealing effectively with refugees. The 2015 European refugee crisis (the arrival in Europe that year of over a million asylum seekers), combined with the doctrine of free movement of people, was one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote.

"Xenophobia (fear of people not like us) is an evolutionary trait which has been hardwired into us throughout the two million years of hominin evolution. Most of human history is a chronicle of rape and pillage. Xenophobia, along with homophily (a preference for our own tribe), is the default. If we want to train the human race out of it then we need to do so slowly and carefully, not by ramping up migration by a factor of ten in a very short space of time."

One of the main arguments for opposing mass immigration is that the price is paid by people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, including downward pressure on wages. Free movement of people is one of the main pillars of neo-liberal globalisation, along with free movement of capital and goods. These capitalist dogmas often hurt the poor, including those assumed to enjoy the ‘privilege’ of being able to move across continents to find employment. Susan and Cathy acknowledge this in relation to housing in particular. They suggest that this problem could be solved by a forward-looking government. Maybe so. But what seems to be missing from their analysis is an appreciation of the deeper reasons for opposition to mass immigration. It’s easy to assume that it arises from xenophobia or racism. But xenophobia (fear of people not like us) is an evolutionary trait which has been hardwired into us throughout the two million years of hominin evolution. Much of human history is a chronicle of rape and pillage. Xenophobia, along with homophily (a preference for our own tribe), is our default setting. If we want to train the human race out of it then we need to do so slowly and carefully, not by ramping up migration by a factor of ten in a very short space of time without any democratic mandate to do so.

Another deep reason for opposing mass immigration is displacement of the indigenous culture and disruption to the sense of home and familiarity. British people are, on the whole, tolerant and welcoming. But large influxes and concentrations of non-indigenous people with different cultures, religions, values, customs and languages can create the feeling that one’s home town or country isn’t home anymore, because it has become host to a multitude of world communities. Confident and cosmopolitan people may view this as a wonderful melting pot, and in some places it may well be. I was recently talking to friends who are moving to Northampton from Swanage in Dorset. They remarked that Swanage is rather 'white' and that they were looking forward to the greater cultural diversity and vibrancy of Northampton. This is an understandable and perhaps virtuous viewpoint. But for others, rapid mass immigration of foreign cultures can be perceived in terms of loss - or even disappearance - of their rooted cultures and communities.

What should we do?

So what should we do about immigration, and the small boats problem in particular? I think we should try to grow, develop and train our own indigenous workforce to a far greater extent than at present. It cannot be right that employers can take the easy option of poaching skilled people from abroad. I think we also have a moral duty to try and stop dangerous Channel crossing in small boats. It's often argued that there's no such thing as 'an illegal asylum seeker' but my understanding is that irregular entry to the UK is an offence. The only exception, according to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, is for people coming directly from where their life or freedom is threatened (Nick Timothy, 2022, and Sunak, 2022). This, obviously, is not the case for people crossing the Channel. They are not 'fleeing from France'. Illegal entrants should, therefore, be subject to detention and deportation. What's stopping this from happening is that migrants can lodge various appeals, including under the European Convention of Human Rights, such as the right to freedom, which is why the government is considering withdrawing from the ECHR. It's an appalling state of affairs for a humanist to have to take sides in a dispute between the Convention and the ECHR, but when human rights arguments are being used to encourage international anarchy and dangerous crossings in small boats it is the concept of human rights which is being brought into disrepute. I find myself leaning towards the original Convention to restore order, as well as Article 28 of the UDHR: 'Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.'

To sum up, I do not believe that the phrase ‘the Common Good’ means that human beings have the right to settle anywhere they want. This would be analogous to saying that anyone has the right to enter your home and set up residence there. But people do have the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries, as enshrined in the UDHR. Disentangling these two causes of migration - one voluntary, the other involuntary - would help us to think more clearly about the problems, and opportunities, of mass immigration.

Cathy Silman, Daniel Dancey, Aaron Darkwood and David Warden will discuss and debate humanist responses to immigration on 25th January at a live Dorset Humanists evening event. For details, sign up to Dorset Humanists on Meetup. The event will be posted in January if not before. Dorset Humanists' events are usually recorded and available to watch later on Dorset Humanists' YouTube Channel.

Further reading and sources

  • Briefing: Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK (2022, 4th edition) by Peter William Walsh for the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

  • Migration Statistics Research Briefing (2022) by Georgina Sturge, House of Commons Library.

  • A Very Short Introduction to Refugees (2021) by Gil Loescher, who was a visiting fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

  • We need a complete reversal in how our immigration system works (4 December 2022) Nick Timothy, former adviser to Prime Minister Teresa May, in The Telegraph newspaper.

  • Our asylum system is broken. This is my ten-point plan to fix it (23 July 2022) Rishi Sunak, current UK Prime Minister, in The Telegraph newspaper.

  • Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries (2020) by Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. See book review in this issue.

  • The Road to Somewhere (2017) by David Goodhart is a good examination of the cultural differences between the ‘somewheres’ (people with a strong sense of belonging in a particular country) and the ‘anywheres’ (people who feel at home anywhere in the world).

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